Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 16, 2007

John Holloway’s complaint

Filed under: autonomism,Iran,Latin America — louisproyect @ 5:48 pm

John Holloway

With the resurgence of a Latin American left expressed mainly by elected governments challenging the capitalist system to one degree or another, there has been a corresponding decline of “autonomist” currents such as the EZLN and the more ideologically disposed supporters and members of the piqueteros and recovered factories movement in Argentina. It is understandably hard to get worked up over Subcommandante Zero’s latest communiqué when Hugo Chavez is changing class relationships on the ground.

Standing in the same relationship to the autonomist currents that Regis Debray once had with the rural guerrilla groups of the 1960s, British professor John Holloway has been forced to take stock of the situation in an interview conducted by Marina Sitrin, an American leftist who writes about Argentine autonomism.

Holloway is the author of “How to Change the World Without Taking Power” that I reviewed here. It basically argues that “If the state paradigm was the vehicle of hope for much of the century, it became more and more the assassin of hope as the century progressed.” It is good for workers to rebel in his view but not good to rule. Whenever I think about such arguments, I am reminded of how my mother’s Irish Setter loved to chase cars up our country road but would always return after a few hundred feet of barking wildly. I thought to myself at the time that the excitable hound wouldn’t know what to do with a car if she actually caught one. For Holloway, the working class is in the same situation as my mom’s Irish Setter.

Sitrin asks Holloway to respond to criticisms made by people who think it is good for workers to be in the driver’s seat:

Many academics, especially those writing in the English language, have been critically writing about the horizontal movements in Latin America. They claim that the movements have failed due to not understanding class and power (That they did/do not want to take it). Now these same people, James Petras or Tariq Ali for example, are writing of the victory of the left, ignoring in most cases what many people in the movements actually desire or are creating. I see this as one-sided, narrow, and historically inaccurate, taking us back to the frame of the 1960-90s. However, these are the writings that most people trying to find out about what is going on in Latin America read. Do you think this does damage to the movements?

I imagine that the “frame of the 1960-90s” is a reference to the Cuban revolution, before the EZLN had become trendy. Now that the Venezuelan revolution is inspiring a new generation of radicals, it is a little bit more difficult to get people down to Mexico for some encuentro that produces nothing but rhetoric. It also suggests the general decline of autonomist and anarchist currents over the past 6 years as the mass movement has had to wrestle with the enormous task of forcing Anglo-American imperialism out of Afghanistan and Iraq. In such a dead serious situation, Black Block antics don’t have much traction.

Holloway’s reply is characteristically coy:

Yes, generally I’m in favour of a broad concept of comradeship, that we should regard all those who say no to capitalism as comrades (at least as comrades of the No, even if not as comrades of the Yes), but sometimes it’s hard to maintain. I agree that there’s an extraordinary blindness to what’s happening, a sort of desperation to squeeze the struggles of today into frameworks of thought constructed in the youth of the commentators. It’s as if they are wearing blinkers that simply will not allow them to see. For them the victory of the left is Chávez and Evo and sometimes even Kirchner and Lula and they don’t see that these electoral successes are, at best, extremely contradictory elements in a very real surge of struggle in Latin America. I’m not sure that these writings have much effect on the movements themselves, but they do spread their blindness especially to readers outside Latin America. What we need of course is more books like your own “Horizontality” to let people hear what is actually happening and what people are doing and saying.

I can understand the frustration of Sitrin and Holloway. “Horizontality” has got to be a hard sell when the competition has such a better product line. When you get your hands on state power, there are all sorts of things that you can do that are impossible for a purist, autonomist movement.

Take Chiapas, for example, which represents for Holloway kind of the same thing that St. Petersburg represented to John Reed in 1917. It embodies his deepest beliefs in what it means to change the world without taking power. However, when it comes to the specifics of changing the world, it is Cuban doctors who have had more impact than the EZLN:

Cuban health workers arrive to help in impoverished southern Mexican state

MEXICO CITY (AP) – Cuban health workers are in southern Chiapas state to help officials cope with a with a sudden spate of infant deaths at a rural hospital, the governor said Monday.

Cuban Deputy Health Minister Gonzalo Estevez is among four Cuban doctors visiting the state to advise officials on possible improvement in the health care system, state officials said. In an interview with the Televisa network, Gov. Pablo Salazar said the doctors were discussing the possibility of bringing “epidemiological brigades” to Chiapas.

Cuba‘s socialist government has made heavy investment in health a point of pride, and has sent thousands of doctors and nurses on missions to impoverished or disaster-stricken areas in Africa and the Americas.

Cuba’s health system, while short on medicines, specializes in preventative and neonatal care.

Salazar said the medical assistance is part of a broader agreement under which Cuba has already sent agronomists and other experts to his state.

Cuba has made a point of offering aid to nations with both friendly and hostile governments. Relations between Mexico and Cuba have been tense over the past year.

When it comes to recovered factories, a kind of ideological dividing line for the autonomists, there is evidence once again that there is no substitute for state power when it comes to getting things done.

Venezuela’s government seized the assets of the country’s largest paper product plant Venepal yesterday, after bankruptcy was finally declared last December.

The troubled company stopped production in September, 2004 threatening to sell off the plant’s machinery to pay off creditors. Workers at the plant who had not been paid for three months, organized a national campaign to encourage the expropriation of the factory, which culminated in yesterday’s official announcement.

The nationalization of Venepal was accompanied by a US$6.7 million credit, necessary to restart production. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez signed the declaration to expropriate the factory after the National Assembly -with the support from opposition parties- declared Venepal to be of “public benefit and social interest” last Thursday – which is a legal prerequisite for expropriation.

I suppose that the autonomist current will not be persuaded by counter-indicators such as these. When you make a fetish over state power, or the lack thereof, you begin to become detached from the world of politics and enter the world of ethics. While there is little harm that can come out of autonomist politics, it seems unlikely that it will ever begin to impact social and economic relationships in a way that can demonstrate its superiority. In an odd way, the attraction to its supporters like Holloway is its very powerlessness.

I recently discovered that autonomism has sunk roots in Iran, where the working class movement has begun to assert itself after years and years of being on the defensive. Since the Iranian left has demonstrated extreme sectarianism over the years, it might not come as a surprise that the local autonomists reflect these bad habits as well.

In Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian’s “Iran on the Brink”, there’s a review of trade union developments in chapter six that demonstrates the liabilities of a kind of autonomist politics, namely the council communism associated with Paul Mattick and Anton Pannekoek. In the most recent resurgence of shoras, or workers councils, the autonomists have tended to do everything they can to keep them from uniting nation-wide and from mounting a general political challenge to the Islamic Republic. They have also argued against trade union organizing, believing that such institutions are as tainted as the state–no matter who runs them.

The Iranian council communists are organized in Komiteye Hamahangi (“The Co-ordinating Committee to Form Workers’ Organisation in Iran”) and are led by Mohsen Hakimi, a Tehran intellectual. Malm and Esmailian write:

Not very strangely, the Komiteye Hamahangi activists – many of whom had experienced the revolution first-hand and then stagnated through the decades of political paralysis – have made a fetish of the shora institution which, in the hands of Hakimi, has been petrifi ed into a doctrine of council communism. Falling back on this early twentieth-century strand of western socialism, associated with the names of Anton Pannekoek and Paul Mattick, Hakimi has reached the conclusion that the council is the only organisation the workers need. No mediation, transitional steps or organisational apparatus should stand between the workers and their goals. In the programmes of the committee, it is explained thus: “We – workers – establish our own councils. With the power of our councils, any interference by any employer in the fate of production is prevented. Our way is to have our councils take production into our own hands.”

To the activists of Komiteye Hamahangi, political parties are anathema. But more crucially, in the light of later events in Iran: trade unions are equally anathema. In council communism, they are considered not only bureaucratic obstacles wasting the energy of shop-floor struggle, but “capitalist organisations” complicit in the trading of labour as a commodity. According to the texts of Komiteye Hamahangi, the trade union is by defi nition a “bargaining unit”, a “mediator between workers and capitalism”, just another machine making “profits” on status quo. The only form of organisation permissible is an “anti-capitalist” one, whose activities will be restricted to propaganda, agitation and “support for strikes, workers’ control initiatives and the like”. Hence Komiteye Hamahangi has declared it of paramount importance to “reveal the dominant resolutions and strategies of ‘syndicalism’ [that is, trade unionism], ‘sectarism’ [sic], ‘social democracy’, ‘liberalism’ or in a word ‘reformism’ as a fundamental obstruction in the way of the working class struggle.”

In 2005, Hakimi wrote articles that sound like the Persian version of John Holloway’s purple prose. He referred to “life without the wage” as a “glimmer of light at the end of a suffocating tunnel–let us come together and burst that tunnel open.”

Fortunately, there are alternatives to Komiteye Hamahangi. There are Marxist activists in the labor movement who have drawn conclusions similar to comrades on Marxmail and elsewhere in the world where “vanguard” conceptions are being questions. After doing some reading and writing on Venezuela lately, they strike me as the counterparts of Causa R.

Known as Komiteye Peygiri (“Follow-up Committee for the Establishment of Free Workers’ Organisations in Iran”), it was started by veterans of the Iranian left that had broken with illusions in Islamic radicalism and had decided to focus on organizing the working class, something that was sadly absent in the past.

Taking the point of view that there was no contradiction between the shoras and the trade union movement, they put forward the following demand:

Holding general assemblies during working hours and in the workplace should be recognised. We demand direct participation and intervention of workers’ representatives in tripartite meetings and in all matters relating to workers’ future. Such representatives should be elected in general assemblies through workers’ direct vote.

In a statement that reflected both a sober assessment of conditions in Iran as well as the need to press forward, they probably spoke for Marxists everywhere:

There is no revolutionary situation in Iran. As Lenin said, two conditions must be met for such a situation to arise: oppressors must be incapable of oppressing any longer, and the oppressed must refuse to be oppressed any more, and neither of these are present in Iran. It’s just sheer voluntarism on their [Hamahangi’s] part. What we can do is start from where we are, and gradually make the Islamic Republic accept our right to form trade unions.


  1. Just a quick note Louis: The name you mention at the beginning of this essay is correctly Marina Sitrin, and she advocates Argentinian Autonomism, but she’s American (she lives here in NYC).

    She compiled a book of interviews of Argentinian activists.

    Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina

    Comment by TFG Casper — May 17, 2007 @ 2:44 pm

  2. The problem with Holloway’s coy response in my mind is that he’s attacking the Marxists who favor smashing the capitalist state with an incipient workers’ state (Soviets, shoras, etc) by saying, “well for them victory means putting people Lula, Chavez, Morales in power” when in fact no self-respecting Marxist would equate the election of any of these individuals to the helm of the capitalist state as socialism or “victory.” (And yes there is an exceptional situation with Chavez).

    It’s this kind of sleight-of-hand that’s so infuriating, but then again, what do the anarchist/autonomists have when Marxists point on the contradictions and limitations of their politics?

    Comment by Binh — May 21, 2007 @ 5:33 pm

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